“Guests of the Nation” is set during the Irish War for Independence in the early 20th century, during which Ireland attempted to secede from the United Kingdom and form a sovereign country. As such, the story is concerned with what it means for people to be from different countries, even if that difference in national identity springs from a border that was drawn only recently. The story dramatizes this distinction in identity by putting a pair of British prisoners in the charge of two members of the Irish army—this group of men were, until recently, countrymen, but they are now at war. The men’s difference in national identity becomes blurred by the camaraderie between them until the Irish soldiers carry out orders to execute the British prisoners who have become their friends. “Guests of the Nation” therefore suggests that while national identity is a somewhat arbitrary construction, its effects are real and important.
Throughout the story, O’Connor foregrounds the camaraderie between the men, obscuring the fact that they are on opposing sides of a war. The group appears at first as four fellow soldiers on an uneventful posting, playing a friendly game of cards with Irish Jeremiah Donovan berating English ‘Awkins “as if he was one of our own.” Awkins even has friends and acquaintances in common with Bonaparte, who is Irish. O’Connor thus misleads readers about the nature of their relationship, presenting them as friends rather than as captors and captives.
This friendly dynamic often seems more important than the facts of war. At multiple points, for example, Bonaparte wonders about the need to guard Belcher and Awkins and it isn’t long before the captors “gave up all pretense of keeping a close eye on their behavior.” Furthermore, the revelation that the Englishmen aren’t guests but hostages horrifies Bonaparte, and he even contemplates trying to prevent his own army from shooting them. He puts these personal relationships on the same plane as his relationship with his new nation. Even to the last, Belcher punctuates his sentences with “chum,” almost showing sympathy towards his friends who have to execute him, and Awkins offers to desert and join the other side as long as he can be with his “chums.” The friendships between the men, then, overwhelm the terms of the larger conflict at times.
Just as O’Connor confuses the terms of the national conflict in his description of the men’s friendship, he also creates ambiguity about national identity (and therefore the stakes of the war) by suggesting that national identity is not particularly significant to the personal identities of the British prisoners and their Irish guards. For example, the men’s affection for one another does not break down on national lines: Bonaparte and Noble are colder towards Jeremiah, their own countryman, than they are to their British enemies, and Bonaparte looks down on Jeremiah for his rough country manners, suggesting that, in everyday life, regional differences are more important than national ones. The British prisoners also seem to adapt naturally to life in Ireland, which undermines the significance of their nationality. Bonaparte notes, for instance, that Awkins and Belcher seem so comfortable in their country that they take to it like a “native weed. Furthermore, the Irish soldiers take on some aspects of British speech, while Awkins demonstrates his knowledge of Irish dance. Overall, this mixing of cultures suggests that the difference in nationality between British and Irish men is trivial and even arbitrary, despite that they are fighting a war to reify this difference.
Once Jeremiah delivers the news that Belcher and Awkins must be executed in retaliation for the execution of Irish hostages, however, the easy dynamic between the men changes and their national origins begin to seem more important. Bonaparte imagines defying his fellow soldiers but recoils from it, recalling that “in those days disunion among brothers seemed to me an awful crime.” As the execution draws closer, O’Connor foregrounds details of Irish names and landscapes, further suggesting the increasing importance of nationality. The arrival of the intelligence agent Feeny introduces the first unequivocally Irish name, as contrasted to the ambiguous nationality suggested by names like Noble and Bonaparte. Furthermore, Jeremiah, once referred to only by his first name, is increasingly identified simply by his Irish-sounding surname Donovan, suggesting that the decision to execute the prisoners and participate in the larger war roots him more firmly in his Irish identity. Finally, the bog, a beloved feature of Irish landscape and a romantic symbol of national greatness, becomes a grim symbol of the atrocities committed in the name of nationalism when the prisoners are buried there.
While the Irish characters keenly feel these national obligations, the British characters grow, if anything, more committed to their friends over their country. Facing execution, ‘Awkins offers to switch sides and fight for the Irish, and it’s clear that he offers this not just to save his own life, but also out of genuine affection for Noble and Bonaparte. In contrast, while Bonaparte may secretly wish to let his friends escape into the countryside, he does nothing to make that happen. O’Connor implies that by fighting for their country, Bonaparte and Noble have lost true friends and even essential traits of mercy and compassion that transcend nationhood.
National Identity ThemeTracker
National Identity Quotes in Guests of the Nation
At dusk the big Englishman Belcher would shift his long legs out of the ashes and ask, “Well, chums, what about it?” and Noble or me would say, “As you please, chum” (for we had picked up some of their curious expressions), and the little Englishman 'Awkins would light the lamp and produce the cards.
I couldn't at the time see the point of me and Noble being with Belcher and 'Awkins at all, for it was and is my fixed belief you could have planted that pair in any untended spot from this to Claregalway and they'd have stayed put and flourished like a native weed.
He looked at me for a spell and said, “I thought you knew we were keeping them as hostages.” “Hostages — ?” says I, not quite understanding. “The enemy,” he says in his heavy way, “have prisoners belong to us, and now they talk of shooting them. If they shoot our prisoners we'll shoot theirs, and serve them right.”
Because there were men on the Brigade you daren't let nor hinder without a gun in your hand, and at any rate, in those days disunion between brothers seemed to me an awful crime. I knew better after.
“Listen to me, Noble,” he said. “You and me are chums. You won't come over to my side, so I'll come over to your side. Is that fair? Just you give me a rifle and I'll go with you wherever you want.”
…but with me it was the other way, as though the patch of bog where the two Englishmen were was a thousand miles away from me, and even Noble mumbling just behind me and the old woman and the birds and the bloody stars were all far away, and I was somehow very small and very lonely. And anything that ever happened me after I never felt the same about again.